Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An open letter to NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt about the paper's curious AY silence

Dear Mr. Hoyt,

If you read other newspapers in New York, you would’ve noticed that there was a lot of Atlantic Yards-related news last week. If you followed the story online, you would’ve learned even more.

That’s why any consumer of media in New York should be disappointed by the New York Times’s failure to publish a word about Atlantic Yards in the past week. Not only is it a major story for the city and region, the Times, given the parent New York Times Company’s business relationship with developer Forest City Ratner, developing the new Times Tower, has a special obligation to be exacting in its coverage.

(Here's my report on the Times's poor coverage, as of 9/1/05, and here's a summary of some lapses last year. I can point to much more, such as overplaying a token scaleback, failing to show the scale of the plan, and extensive rowback.)

March liftoff

Let me recap. On March 21, the Times, in a front-page story—and the lead in the local edition—reported on a stall in the project, with Phase 2 delayed indefinitely. There had been a widespread sense that the project was delayed, after a legal filing in January, but the Times’s article put the issue on the map. (The Times failed to point out that the $950 million arena price tag was a 50% leap.) A few days later, Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who’d previously written columns about the project ranging from enthusiastic to partly-supportive, wrote a strongly-worded essay urging architect Frank Gehry to walk away.

A month later, Ouroussoff published an essay in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section pointing out how architectural renderings can lie. His example was the Hudson Yards project; in my critique, I pointed out how his criticisms could be applied equally to Atlantic Yards renderings and this week followed up by noting how the arena in the rendering at top couldn't gain its full metal skin until the towers around it are completed.

I broke news about how Chuck Ratner, an executive with Forest City Enterprises, told investment analysts, with satisfaction, that the developer had managed to get another $105 million in city funding to support the project, but “we still need more.” (Maybe that’s why Forest City Ratner in January broke a pattern and gave $58,420 to the New York State Democratic Assembly Campain Committee's Housekeeping account, a story the dailies have missed.)

New funding agreements

More information has emerged, however, since the Times’s March 21 news story. For example, on my blog March 24, I broke the news that the State Funding Agreement gave developer Forest City Ratner 6+ years to build the arena and 12+ years to build Phase 1, with no timetable for Phase 2, even though the Empire State Development Corporation, in approving the project, said it was “anticipated” to take a decade. On April 30, I broke the news that the City Funding Agreement allows the developer to build only 1.5 million square feet—not 2.7 million square feet, in the approval documents—to avoid a penalty. The agreement revealed that the funds used for seemingly-generous buyouts (right) by the developer come from the public.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported and editorialized on new moves to keep the Nets in New Jersey and move them to the recently-opened Prudential Center in Newark Subsequently, a lawyer for tenants in the project footprint filed a lawsuit saying the revised timetable violates the Eminent Domain Procedure Law—and the Times covered this relatively minor story.

A rally and more

Then came the flurry of news. First, on Saturday, May 3, opponents and critics held a planned rally calling for Gov. David Paterson to declared a “Time Out” on the plan. The same day, Forest City Ratner and allies organized (but did not announce) a counter-protest, bringing at least 50% more people to shout “Build It Now.”

The next morning, May 4, the Daily News published an exclusive op-ed by Forest City Ratner CEO Bruce Ratner, declaring that the project was moving full speed ahead, more or less, though an anchor tenant for the office tower was still being sought. As I wrote, the single strongest reason for skepticism is Ratner's statement that "We anticipate finishing all of Atlantic Yards by 2018." After all, executive Chuck Ratner of parent Forest City Enterprises told investment analysts last year, "As you know, in our business, these things take a very long time, most often, frankly, longer than we anticipate."

New renderings

The next morning, May 5, the Daily News got an exclusive, publishing new renderings of the arena block (top)—well at least a new arena, one new residential tower, and the office tower, no longer called “Miss Brooklyn.” The developer claimed that the tower had been renamed B1; actually, it’s always been B1 in the scheme of the project. The New York Post published its own exclusive, renderings of the project’s empty lots, produced by the Municipal Art Society.

That day, the developer issued a press release and new renderings to all. (I pointed out how one building, at Site 5, seemed to be missing.) The Municipal Art Society also distributed its renderings and established a new web site, Atlantic Lots.

The Times's failure to report any of this is inconsistent with its previous coverage. The Times published three previous stories based on Atlantic Yards renderings. The 12/11/03 article came after a press conference. The 7/5/05 article was an exclusive. The 5/11/06 article also came after a press conference.

Just because the Daily News got the exclusive this time doesn't mean the Times should ignore it. As your predecessor, Byron Calame, wrote in a 3/11/07 column, "The reality is that when significant news breaks — even in the form of an exclusive in a competing publication — The Times must be committed to getting on the story. Anything less seriously damages the paper’s value to readers."

What's missing

Even if the Times missed the breaking news, it could've advanced the story, or at least covered the meta-story. WNYC broke news by reporting that the arena’s green roof, a selling point for the design, had been jettisoned, and reporter Matthew Schuerman—who had covered the Atlantic Yards story while at the New York Observer—even ventured an analysis, suggesting that the timing was geared to the May 15 effort to sell luxury suites. (That luxury suite showroom, by the way, will be in the Times Tower.)

The New York Sun, generally shorthanded, also missed the story, but in its sports pages wrote thoughtfully about the challenges in moving the Nets to Newark. On Friday, the Sun’s architecture critic published his own critique. The Times’s Ouroussoff hasn’t weighed in.

Disserving the readers

Let's give the Times the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Sure, its Brooklyn desk is small and its main real estate and development reporter has a lot to handle. Yes, other newspapers got exclusives. However, the Times today assigned four reporters to a story about a television anchorwoman inadvertently cursing. Meanwhile, the Times’s readers are disserved when not told informed about a major project involving significant public resources and attempts to sway public opinion.

I wonder if the Times's Sports desk will cover Thursday's effort to sell luxury suites and, if so, will point out how such suites might pay for arena construction and how the timetable has been delayed. The Sports desk has been unskeptical about the developer's timetable claims; even now, after Forest City Ratner has finally claimed 2010 as a target to open the arena, there's strong evidence that's unlikely.

What do you think, Mr. Hoyt?

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